New England waits for breaking of Big Oil's monopoly

Oct 23, 2007 02:00 AM

New England’s rivers, abundant forests, and whaling industry once made it rich in energy, but for more than a century the region has suffered from being at the end of supply lines for coal, natural gas, and oil. Now an alternative source of energy, grain-based biofuels, is emerging, and once again New England seems to be at a geographic disadvantage.
But it doesn't have to be. In Massachusetts, state officials are at work on a plan to make fuels made from plant matter a bigger part of the state's energy profile and to reduce the state's greenhouse gas emissions.

Until now, most biofuel production has been based on ethanol made from Midwestern corn. But corn's role in ethanol production is expected to flatten out in the near future. Researchers -- including many in the Boston area -- are at work developing different feedstocks for production of ethanol, which is most often a replacement for gasoline, and biodiesel, a replacement for diesel fuel in vehicles and for home-heating oil.
Biodiesel can also be used in electricity generation.

Replacing heating oil with a plant-based fuel is especially appealing when oil is selling at $ 2.72 a gallon. Right now, the price of biodiesel is slightly higher than diesel or heating oil, but that should change as scientists develop cheaper sources for it than the soybeans now used in most biodiesel.
For that reason, a biodiesel plant being planned for Pittsfield will have the capacity to use vegetable oil from many sources, although it will start with soybean oil. The plant will be able to produce 50 mm gallons a year, which is about 10 % of the state's total demand for diesel transportation use. Other possible feedstocks for the facility are canola, which could be grown in New England, and restaurant grease.

The Holy Grail for biodiesel researchers is to develop and stabilize algae as a source of vegetable oil. Certain forms of algae produce thousands of gallons of oil per acre, versus the 46 gallons of soybeans. Production would be either in large concrete ponds or giant test tubes.
This would keep biofuels from being the exclusive domain of grain producers and agribusiness, already the villains in the just-released documentary, "Big Corn," which explores corn's role in the obesity epidemic.

Massachusetts can help put green fuel in auto and home heating tanks, both by offering incentives to local firms that are improving biofuel technology and by ensuring that the state's drivers and homeowners have access to vegetable-based alternatives to gasoline and oil.
When the environmental and national security costs are added to the high price of heating oil, biofuels -- especially ones that do not depend on relatively costly corn or soybeans -- are a bargain.

Source: Globe Newspaper Company
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